At first glance, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and the Mexican artist Diego Rivera couldn’t have been more different. She was the daughter of a prominent Republican senator and had married into one of America’s most famous capitalist families; he was a devoted member of Mexico’s Communist party, who had visited Moscow before his first U.S. mural commission in San Francisco.
Abby, however, was a huge admirer of Rivera’s art. He’d developed a reputation as one of his generation’s leading modern artists, and she knew all about his triumphs as a muralist in his homeland (in buildings such as the Ministry of Education in Mexico City), not to mention his mural for the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower in San Francisco. She purchased a number of Rivera’s oil paintings, sketches and watercolours. Her first purchase in 1929 was May Day Parade, a Rivera sketchbook (now in the collection at MoMA), which he had completed on a trip to Moscow.
In 1931, in her capacity as co-founder and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Abby invited Rivera for a solo exhibition at the institution, making him only the second artist, after Matisse, to receive that honour. It is likely that Mexico had been on her mind for decades, ever since her first trip to the country in 1903. Rivera embodied everything that Abby and Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first Director, were looking for in terms of the museum’s programming: he was both a modernist genius with a towering body of work and as Mexico’s leading muralist, he was the foremost proponent of a genuine art movement from the Americas to the world.
On arrival in New York, Rivera paid a visit to the Rockefellers’ Manhattan home with his wife, the artist Frida Kahlo. ‘He was a very imposing and charismatic figure: tall and weighing three hundred pounds,’ Abby’s son, David Rockefeller, recalled in later life.
Rivera brought with him a new canvas, titled The Rivals, which Abby had commissioned and which he had painted in a makeshift studio aboard the steamship, the SS Morro Castle, en route from Mexico. The painting depicts a traditional festival from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca known as Las Velas, a colourful celebration in observance of local patron saints and of the natural bounties of spring.
‘It’s undoubtedly one of Rivera’s masterpieces,’ says Virgilio Garza, Head of Latin American Paintings at Christie’s. ‘Compared with his murals — which are epic in scale and content, with sweeping vistas and narratives that are often ideologically or historically driven — this easel painting is equally monumental in presence, yet devoid of Rivera’s politics. It’s a much more intimate scene focused on regional traditions, and the brushwork is deliberately looser.’
Others have praised the rich combination of bright colours, reminiscent of Matisse (whom Rivera knew from the decade he’d spent in Paris, between 1911 and 1921) but also, more pertinently, reflecting the vivid hues evident across Mexico: from its flora to its architecture. ‘And then there’s his modern conception of space through the use of multiple planes of colour that recall the formal effects of synthetic Cubism,’ says Garza. ‘Forms and figures are synthesised and reduced to their essential elements. The viewer’s gaze recedes in stages, from the men in the foreground, to the brightly dressed women under the hanging papel picado. Rivera’s brilliant composition of intersecting planes creates a cinematic narrative.’
The Rivals was as popular with Abby as Rivera’s sell-out MoMA retrospective proved to be with New York’s public. In 1932, she approached the artist about another project: completing a mural for the lobby of the RCA Building, the centrepiece of the Rockefeller Center, her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s new complex in Midtown Manhattan.
Rivera’s idea was a fresco on the twin themes of human cooperation and scientific development, and he sent Abby a planned sketch of it along with a letter saying, ‘I assure you that… I shall try to do for the Rockefeller Center — and especially for you, Madame — the best of all the work I have done up to this time.’
In the process of painting the mural Man at the Crossroads, Rivera made several changes to his original sketch that would have fateful consequences. Chief among these was the addition of Lenin’s features into the face of a labourer. When news of this change in the mural reached Nelson Rockefeller, David’s older brother, he asked Rivera to substitute the late Soviet leader for another figure.
The painter, despite many attempts to persuade him, refused. Equally vexing to the Rockefeller family was the depiction of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. on the left side of the mural drinking among a group of men and cavorting with women of questionable repute. The latter was a striking image given the family’s devout religious views and their abstinence from drinking and smoking, as well as the Rockefellers’ firm support of U.S. Prohibition-era laws. With no compromise reached, Rivera was dismissed, and although he was paid in full the mural was destroyed. ‘The mural was quite brilliantly executed,’ wrote David Rockefeller in Memoirs in 2002, ‘but not appropriate’.
Rivera would go on to recreate Man at the Crossroads, in modified form as Man, Controller of the Universe, on the walls of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Here again, Rivera depicted John D. Rockefeller, Jr. clutching a martini amid scenes of gambling and excess, while the other side featured workers and various Communist leaders.
The Rivals took pride of place in the living room at Ringing Point, Peggy and David Rockefeller’s home in Maine © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2018
Despite all these events, Abby and her sons Nelson and David remained admirers until the end. She would donate many of the Rivera works she owned to MoMA, although The Rivals was one piece she held on to. As a sign of how highly she valued it, Abby gave it to David and his wife Peggy McGrath as a wedding present in 1940. They, in turn, would give the painting pride of place, for decades, in the living room of their summer residence, Ringing Point, in Maine.
David Rockefeller’s interest in Latin America and its art and culture spanned many decades. In January 1946, after completing his military service in the Second World War and before he started work at Chase Bank, he and Peggy decided to take ‘a second honeymoon’. They settled on Mexico as the destination for their six-week holiday.
‘This was our first direct exposure to Latin America, and we were very much taken with what we saw,’ David wrote years later. ‘We were especially fascinated by the remarkable pre-Columbian monuments and artefacts, as well as by the charm of much contemporary Mexican painting and folk art.’ He recounted how keen they were to see the famous Mexican frescoes of Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City and Cuernavaca. ‘We especially wanted to see Rivera’s murals, since I had met Rivera with my mother when he first came to New York in 1931,’ he recalled. ‘I had always found him to be a very sympathetic person, and I liked his painting.’
The couple had travelled to Mexico armed with letters of introduction from Nelson Rockefeller, who had been appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs by President Roosevelt and had subsequently visited virtually all the Latin American nations. One letter was addressed to Roberto Montenegro, an artist friend of Nelson’s, who introduced David and Peggy to other contemporary Mexican artists.
At the beginning of his long career with Chase, one of David’s first assignments was in the bank’s Latin American division. In 1965 he assumed the chairmanship of both the Council of the Americas and its new cultural adjunct, the Center for Inter-American Relations (CIAR). The latter was responsible for introducing Americans to the cultures and artists of Latin America, including staging the first one-man show in New York for Fernando Botero.
In 1991, he endowed the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, which continues to explore Latin American politics, society, and culture, and after his retirement from the bank David was made chairman of The Americas Society, which afforded him, he said, ‘many new opportunities to visit the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, and to appreciate their diverse art and culture.’